Wintertime Wild Edibles
In the Midwest where we are located many people don’t think of winter as a foraging season. As a matter of fact, many Midwesterners are used to having a foot or more of snow covering the ground throughout the winter. However, given fluctuations in weather throughout the season and certain structures of habitat some plants can be easily accessed and gathered even through this cold less fruitful season.
In the early winter before the landscape has turned into a snow covered and harsh environment you can still find and gather wintergreen leaves. Wintergreen grows in hardwood forests in sandy well drained soil. It’s a small evergreen perennial plant that grows up to six inches, liking to grow in the shade of the forest. Wintergreens leaves are oblong and oval giving a showing of dark shiny green color that will turn reddish in winter. In early spring the plant develops white bell-shaped flowers and in early summer produce red berries that have a bright fruity smell. The leaves giving this plant its most distinguished or well-known characteristic of an aromatic wintergreen when crushed. Wintergreen has ben used throughout history as an herbal remedy brewed as tea to sooth an upset stomach or mixed with other ingredients to create a relaxing muscle balm. Aside from its medicinal uses there are many ways to enjoy this wild forage. A syrup can be made to help as a flavoring in deserts, the extract can be used to make mints, or the leaves can be minced and muddled for use in cocktails but you can also eat and chew the leaves picked right off the plant for a nice minty wintergreen treat as you go for a stroll through the woods.
Rich in antioxidants and polysaccharides chaga is a parasitic fungus frequently found growing on the outside of dying birch trees. These fungi can be easily identified by its burl like formation on the outside of or growing out of the wounds of birch trees. What looks like a burl is actually the fruiting body of the fungus. It has a black rough exterior and a reddish interior having a hard-woody texture. It grows in the forests of the northern hemisphere and can be found in the Midwest where many birch trees are present. Chaga can be gathered year-round. To gather chaga you want to find a specimen with decent size, 5 or 6 inches would do. To remove the fungus, you may need a tool such as a small hand saw or hand axe as the substance is hard. Be sure to leave a layer of the body on the outside of the tree so the fungus can continue to grow and be collected in the future. Chaga is a safe and multipurpose foraged mushroom that can be consumed in many ways and also has a number of other uses to all would be outdoors people. Most easily and commonly chaga can be used to brew a tea as boiling is the best way to extract its polysaccharides but can be a flavorful addition to your morning coffee as well. The aromatic and chocolate-ish earthy tones are a great addition to many recipes in the kitchen when this is ground into a fine powder. This has been recently used in additions to beer recipes. Other uses for chaga, it can be used for fire starting and fire transportation purposes when dry.
Sugar Maple Sap
The sugar maple is a large deciduous tree. In the summer showing bright green leaves and in autumn turning into beautiful shades of red, orange, and yellow. Its bark is dark gray and as the tree ages will become deeply rutted. While the wilderness around these sleeping giants is covered in a landscape of snow, in February the sugar maple tree begins to wake up and its sap will begin to flow. When temperatures start to stay above freezing for consecutive days usually in the middle to end of February Maple syrup harvest season begins. To produce maple syrup, you will need to insert a tap into the trunk of the tree about 4 or 5 feet from the ground. Hang a bucket from the tap and check it daily. Once your sap is gathered you will need to boil off the excess water to produce the desired maple syrup. Some of this goes without saying but there are many ways to enjoy this. As simple as putting your syrup on the always favorite pancakes or French toast to using it as a flavoring agent in a favorite cocktail. You can add it to coffee as a sweetener use it to glaze pastries and use it to replace cane sugar in baked goods. Let your imagination go wild and try this in anything you think could use a sweetener. For the future and the sustainability of harvests you should only tap mature maple trees 12 inches in diameter or bigger as to not negatively impact the growing cycle of the smaller trees.
White pine needles
White pine is a tall conifer tree. It has soft long flexible needles and its bark is a smooth greenish gray. There is no better way to bring the scents of the forest to a meal then by foraging these pine boughs. It can be used as a exceptional flavor addition with its aromatic citrus fragrance. The best place to look for these pines is in sandy soil like that in regions of northern Michigan or on beaches and old home steads. Needles can be harvested at any time but are best at the end of winter or early spring. The needles can be used in the kitchen in many ways. The needles have a bright, citrusy, and sour flavor. They can be minced and used in most recipes that call for lemon. You can also chop the needles and use them as an herb to flavor salads and combined with vinegar to make dressings. Some people have used this forage in breads in the place of rosemary. Some brewers will even use White pine needles to add flavor in different types of beer. As an herbal remedy in the bush, white pine needles can be brewed as a tea. Add a large handful of needles to a pot of boiling water and let steep for 3 to 5 minutes let cool can drink making sure to inhale the aromatic vapors. These same methods and be used with Spruce as well.
This list was just a few of our favorites. There are many more great things to find and forage in the wintertime. Go looking, do some research and make an adventure out of gathering the very natural and nutritious wintertime wild edibles.